Covering nearly 800,000 square kilometers and stretching into two countries, planning a trip to Patagonia can be an overwhelming undertaking. Here’s everything I think is important to get you started.
The Chilean side
The skinny stretch of Chilean Patagonia is characterized by hundreds of inhabited islands, jagged coastline, forested fjords and expansive ice fields. North of Puerto Montt, travel is quite straight forward and the lake district can easily be traversed. South of this city, the Carretera Austral is the only highway which travels continuously until Villa O’Higgins. Narrow and only partly paved, travel here is slow.
After Villa O’Higgins, the road stops. To continue traveling further south you must either travel by ferry, or the more popular option– by going around and entering from Argentina.
With the Andes on one side, and rich seaside vegetation covering the many inlets and fjords, travel through this area is full of beautiful views. Tourism is still a step behind though, so don’t expect all the same conveniences as in the north of Chile.
A lot of research should go into this region if planning a trip to Patagonia in Chile. There is so much to see!
This small town with a laid-back and hippie vibe is also a turquoise blue river of the same name. The entire area is beautiful, while the river rafting and kayaking is world renowned.
Puyuhuapi surroundings and Queulat National Park
This area reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. Due to the high rainfall, the vegetation is thick. We also spent a luxurious night at the Puyuhuapi Lodge and hot springs.
This national reserve south of Coyhaique is lesser known compared to other areas. Still, it shouldn’t be missed. A one day hike to the lagoon was one of my favorite hikes in the entire region.
Home to the famous Marble Caves, Puerto Tranquilo is a sleepy town with a lot to offer. Situated on the bluest lake I’ve ever seen, sunny days beg for kayaking or relaxing by the waterfront. It is also near the San Rafael glacier, popular for glacier trekking.
Torres del Paine
The most famous national park in the country, Torres del Paine is full of lakes, valleys and these famous granite peaks. My recommendation? Just try to avoid high season.
The Argentina side
What most people don’t realize is that the majority of Argentine Patagonia is made up of flat, wind-blown, barren plains. Stretching south of Rio Negro all the way to the tip of South America, the area is enormous. If you’re like me, you’ll probably only be interested in a small portion of it. Luckily, that small portion is mind-blowing.
Although popular all year round, Bariloche is famous for skiing and the Alpine architecture of its downtown. In summer, the weather is perfect for hiking and enjoying the lake. The nightlife isn’t bad either.
If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, you can’t miss El Chaltén. In fact, it was my favorite stop in the entire region. The town is full of trekking shops, micro-breweries and adventurers of all kinds. Right from the town you can take various multi-day or day hikes, all offering amazing glacial lakes and views of the famous goliath, Fitz-Roy.
Los Glaciares National Park
Also covering the protected area near El Chalten, the other part of Los Galciares National Park can be reached from El Calafate. The famous Perito Moreno glacier is here, but also so much more. A ferry trip can take you out through the lake and into the many canals full of boat sized icebergs and other expansive glaciers.
Planning a Trip to Patagonia: How to Get Around
By far the most flexible and optimal way to see the region, having a car doesn’t come without its disadvantages. If you’re planning on driving the Carretera Austral in Chile, prepare for a lot of gravel bumpy roads. Also, this method is appropriately expensive. Taking rentals down through Patagonia can tear them apart. Still this offers the most flexibility, and is such a luxury in a region where everyone else will either be hitch-hiking or on an organized tour.
Things to know:
- You’ll have to return the car to where you rented it. One way rental fees can add $500-$1000 to your rental fee.
- We used Ruta 40 Car Rental in Bariloche. We rented a Renault Duster for $1850 for 18 days. This was the biggest and best car we could find for around that price. After driving from Bariloche to El Calafate and back, it was not in good shape. It even broke down on the last day! Still, I think the quality of cars down there in general aren’t always fit for the roads. It wasn’t this rental agencies fault specifically.
- You could also rent from inside Chile, like in Puerto Montt. My dad had already explored this area and the drive from Puerto Montt requires taking a few ferries, so we went with a starting point in Bariloche, which is further south.
- You have to pay attention to where you fill up. There are long stretches without any gas stations!
- Cut costs of your trip by camping. There are campsites in every town.
Although the scenery is monotonous, driving Argentina’s Ruta 40 is like being on a safari!
The majority of young travelers see the region, especially the Chilean side, by hitch-hiking. It’s a safe and very popular way to travel, especially in the summer.
Things to note:
- Chileans are much more likely to pick up hitch-hikers. It can be much more difficult in Argentina where the practice has had some bad press.
- In the high season it may take you hours to get a ride. This isn’t because no one picks anyone up, but because there are so many people trying to hitch a ride. In each town the hitchhikers head to the most convenient pick-up spot (usually the entrance or exit of town) and wait in line appropriately. If you get out there early in the morning (7-8am) you’ll most likely be first in line. Many hitchhikers wait until later in the day after packing up camp.
- Any group over 2 many be difficult to pick up. If there are 4 of you, you’d likely have to split into two groups. Solo travelers will have the easiest time.
- Sometimes you’ll just have to take a ride as far as you can, and then find another from there. Journeys can be split into multiple parts.
- If you have a flexible itinerary and ample time it’s the most economical way to travel the region!
- I do not recommended hitching the route from El Calafate to Puerto Natales. That journey took us 12 hours!
Not into hitchhiking? Bike it! Many bicyclists ride the entire length of the region.
By organized tour
Although pricey and very fast paced, traveling the region by organized tour is by far the easiest. Tackling this region can take a fair amount of planning and distance to be covered, so if you’re overwhelmed by this, a tour is a good option.
Things to note:
- Some tours travel in small 15 passenger vans and others in large off-road buses. Shop around to find what fits your interests.
- Research the route. Some of these tours cover such enormous distances in a short period of time. This can be exhausting and lead to long hours in transit.
- Accommodation fills up quickly in high season, for this reason having it all booked for you in advance by the tour can be a luxury.
- If camping, tents and camping gear will be provided. This is helpful for travelers who don’t want to carry their gear around.
Large long distance buses cover all of Argentina, but this isn’t also the same for Chile. Many stretches of the Carretera Austral are too narrow for large long distances buses. While smaller buses still run, they can be inconvenient and expensive within Southern Chile. Many people split their travels between hitchhiking and buses, depending on the town and schedule. It also seemed to me that the prices were never consistent. Sometimes a short couple hour journey could cost as much as $20 when a longer one might only be a few.
Things to know:
- If taking a long distance bus in either Chile or Argentina, research your class. Riding in “cama” and sometimes “semi-cama” can be far more comfortable than a flight.
- The Lakes District and Tierra del Fuego of Chile have more reliable bus routes. It’s on the middle portion of the Carretera Austral between small villages where bus travel can be more difficult.
The last way to travel this region is by ferry from Puerto Montt. Over 3 days for $550 you can navigate the fjords and small islands to get to Puerto Natales. For that price you receive a berth in a shared cabin. Navimag is the most popular ferry which does the journey.
Cruceros Australis does journeys to Usuahia from Punta Arenas.
When planning a trip to Patagonia, taking the ferry is a good alternative to consider for getting back to your starting point.
Planning a Trip to Patagonia: Budgeting
While planning a trip to Patagonia, budgeting can be a difficult part. This will all depend on if you decide to camp and your mode of transportation. In general, overestimate your costs. This region is the most expensive in South America. While eating empanadas every day will save you money, everyone needs variety and comfort. Just prepare that even basics in this region will cost you.
If you have the ability, bring U.S. dollars with you. These can be easily used in Argentina, as the peso is almost worthless. In Chile, you can pay for accommodation with U.S. dollars and avoid paying taxes. ATM fees in this region are exceptionally high. Signing up for a Charles Schwab account (of you’re American) will save you a lot since ATM fees are reimbursed.
- A decent meal can easily run you $10+.
- In touristy areas of Argentina, like El Chaltén and El Calafate, a craft beer (popular down there at the moment) can easily cost $5-7.
- Entrances to the large national parks (Glaciares from El Calafate and Torres del Paine) can run from $20-30 for foreigners.
- The cheapest hotels we could find ran for about $50-65 per room in high season.
- When we traveled (January 2016) it costs us around $1.20 per liter of petrol.
Planning a Trip to Patagonia: Border Crossings
If you plan on seeing both sides of the Andes, chances are you’ll cross the border multiple times. Luckily, just this March (2016) Argentina stopped enforcing the $160 reciprocity fee for Americans. Check to make sure your country is also visa/reciprocity free.
Customs in Chile is strict. Fines may be enforced for bringing any produce, nuts or honey. If you have any dry food for camping, just make sure to list it on your form instead of trying to sneak it across. While I couldn’t bring in trail mix, I was allowed to keep all the packaged dehydrated food I brought from the U.S.
You can cross back and forth almost as many times as you want on your passport. If you are crossing in a rental you’ll need the agency to give you all the appropriate permits and paperwork. Each time you cross they will stamp and area of a document. Make sure you have enough of these for each crossing.
Camping & Trekking
If you plan on doing enough trekking and camping, it is a good idea to bring your own gear. Rental gear can be costly, but worth it if it isn’t going to be a large enough part of your trip for you to lug it around the continent.
In El Chalten and Puerto Natales you can easily rent gear for multi-day treks.
If you plan on camping throughout the region you’ll save a lot of money. Campgrounds are popular and can be found everywhere, no reservation required. Expect for pay from $5-10 per person to camp in the region.
Extra tips for planning a trip to Patagonia:
- Chile is basically cheaper for everything, with the exception of petrol.
- Need to book a hotel or Google something? Almost all public squares in Chile have free Wifi!
- Pay attention to the opening and closing hours. Just because you’re hungry at 5pm doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find a place to eat in remote areas. You’ll have to get on local schedules.
- Even in summer, weather can change in an instant. At night, it can still be pretty chilly too!